Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » “Thereby Hangs a Tale”: David O. McKay on the Stake Conference Circuit, 1909

“Thereby Hangs a Tale”: David O. McKay on the Stake Conference Circuit, 1909

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 08, 2013

If you’re as old as dirt – like me – you remember when stake conferences were “quarterly” events instead of today’s twice-a-year meetings, and you remember that a General Authority attended and spoke at virtually every one of them. The Church was a lot smaller then, and with the increase in membership and geographical spread, that practice has had to fall by the wayside.

In the late 19th/early 20th centuries, that smaller geographic region was offset by difficulties of transportation. General Authorities, often a pair of them, and often accompanied by members of the auxiliary general boards, sometimes spent weeks at a time away from home, making circuits of far-flung stakes. Such a group might visit Manassa, Colorado, then travel through Arizona, then swing down into the Mormon colonies in northern Mexico before turning northward and returning to Salt Lake by another route, holding conferences every weekend. Other circuits would take leaders north through Idaho and Montana into Canada, or to California or Tennessee or New York City, where they met with mission leaders. They reorganized bishoprics, addressed multiple meetings in each stake, arbitrated disputes, investigated properties the Church was interested in, approved building sites, ordained men to the Melchizedek priesthood, and did whatever else needed doing by high Church authority. Then they hitched up their wagons or climbed aboard the train, and repeated the performance in the next stake down the road.

Such traveling general authorities got into the habit of writing letters to the First Presidency after every conference or two. These letters reported the names of newly installed local leaders, discussed local problems that the general leaders might need to be aware of, and informed them of everything from epidemics of childhood diseases to the prospects for crops, from the general level of local priesthood activity to the need to contribute to local building projects. There was no set format to these reports – some were brief and businesslike, others were chatty and filled with anecdotes.

David O. McKay, an apostle for three years, drew the assignment to visit wards and stakes in southern Utah in the late summer of 1909 – he celebrated his 37th birthday at Kanab while on that trip. The week before his birthday, he visited the stake conference at Panguitch, in company with Charles H. Hart (one of seven presidents of the Seventy), and a couple specializing in Primary work. He brought along his 8-year-old son Lawrence (maybe to ease the burden of his wife Emma Ray, at home with two other children and weeks away from giving birth to her fourth child). Elder Hart also had one of his sons along; he had several about the same age as Lawrence McKay and I do not know which one he brought.

After holding meetings at Panguitch, Elders McKay and Hart, accompanied by Garfield Stake President James Houston, and Pres. Houston’s counselor Joseph E. Heywood, left Panguitch for the next stop on the circuit. According to Elder McKay’s report,

Tuesday morning, in the midst of a rain storm, we started, in two single buggies, for Cannonville to reorganize the Bishopric. Brother Heywood, Pres. Hart and his little boy in one buggy, and Pres. Houston, Bro. McKay and his little boy in the other.

All day we plodded along up Red Canyon, now going through deep washes, now wading the river, now driving over sagebrush, always in mud or water.

It was five o’clock in the afternoon when we arrived at Tropic, and our faithful teams were tired. Here we learned that the “Wash” between Tropic and Cannonville was impassable; so we had to take a round-about road. In doing so, we met with a series of mishaps, and thereby “hangs a tale.”

First, in pulling out of a deep “wash,” a hook on a single-tree broke, and we were nearly precipitated over an embankment. This tied with wire, we started again only to encounter mud – cement mud – already mixed – which clogged our wheels until the horses couldn’t pull us. To add to the difficulty, a single-tree broke, then another hook. By this time the storm had doubled in fury, and seemed to be holding a jubilee over our predicament. Lightning, thunder, rain, and mud!!

When we finally reached the main road it was a question of whether we could get to the crossing of the main channel before the floods filled it.

We urged our worn-out horses to a last effort. Made the first crossing alright, and the second, though the current was swift.

Only one more and we should be safe! But the floods beat us. Between the two main crossings a mad torrent swept down the hillside, down a channel across our road, and obstructed our way by a stream ten feet deep rushing at a terrific rate.

By this time retreat was cut off as well; so just at dark, within two miles of our destination, we sat in our buggies all night, in the midst of the din and roar of the worst flood southern Utah has seen for many, many years.

In the middle of the night, the rain ceased; and at daylight next morning, we were guided through the subsiding torrent by two kind brethren on horseback, from Cannonville.

At 11a.m., we met the Priesthood of the ward, and at 1:30 p.m., the Saints. Elder Wm. J. Henderson Jr. was unanimously sustained as Bishop and ordained by David O. McKay; and Elder Owen W. Clark was sustained as first Counselor, set apart by Bro. Hart. The second Counselor will be chosen later.

At 7:30 p.m. that night we held meeting in Tropic.

Owing to the flood, we had to cancel our appointment at Hatch.

We are now on our way to Kanab. We learn that they have lost their dam.

The flood has been a most devastating one.

Coincidentally, there is a link in Keepa’s sidebar right now to dramatic video of Southern Utah flash flooding three weeks ago.

And we think it’s hard to do our home and visiting teaching!



  1. It was only a few years before this that President Snow went to Southern Utah and admonished them to pay tithing to end the drought. Maybe they were paying too much tithing by this point. :-)

    Comment by Steve C. — August 8, 2013 @ 8:38 am

  2. What a story. I loved his witty description of the mud: “cement mud – already mixed”!

    Comment by David Y. — August 8, 2013 @ 9:32 am

  3. Airplanes and cars must seem so boring!

    Comment by Mark B. — August 8, 2013 @ 10:13 am

  4. Steve C. for the win!

    Comment by Grant — August 8, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

  5. Wow. What a trip! One of the sisters in my ward tells a story about a trip home from church many years ago that sounds something like this, with the difference that it happened in New Jersey and there was no “cement mud.”

    That’s a great video of the flash flood, and with a name like that, the photographer is likely a descendant of one of my upcoming Eminent Women, Catherine Donald Rankin Pymm.

    Comment by Amy T — August 8, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

  6. It’s a pretty substantial change in church governance: 50 years ago there were four stake conferences a year, all with at least one general authority visitor, and now we have just two stake conferences a year, with a general authority visitor every other year.

    When he was president of Quorum of the Twelve and in the First Presidency, Joseph Fielding Smith was concerned about the organization of stakes far from Salt Lake City, reportedly saying something to the effect “You can approve them, but you’ll have to supervise them.” I suppose he hadn’t foreseen how differently the church would be administered a mere 50 years in the future. I mean, had things changed much in the 50 years since he was ordained an apostle?

    Someday, maybe, I’ll tell you the story about how the Twelve approved the creation of the Johannesburg South Africa Stake.

    Comment by Mark B. — August 8, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

  7. I don’t think Apostle McKay enjoyed traveling by steamship any more than this some 15 years or so later.

    Comment by kevinf — August 8, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

  8. I still have an image of McKay when he was the Prophet stuck in my head. I’m having a hard time imagining him as a young apostle, in a carriage, stranded on an island by a flash flood. Just awesome.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — August 8, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

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